Memories of Medellin
By Usha Akella
When an experience floods the heart, words recede. And if words can recede in those who practice the very craft of words then what kind of experience can it be? ‘Humbling,’ ‘Overwhelming’ and ‘Healing.’ The poetry festival of Medellin is one of a kind; we the poets became witness to the transforming power of Poetry. We experienced Poetry as a perceptible power larger than the poets; the healing and eternal power of the word resounded not just during the opening and closure, attended by 3,000-4,000, but also during the many individual readings organized in the 16 towns in Antioquia and 10 other cities of Colombia. We experienced poetry as something bigger than ourselves, we felt ourselves reawakened to the primal force present in poetry and this awakening left us with a strengthened faith in our roles of poets in the fabric of life; an awareness that is so often lost in a world marked by consumerism and materialism that leaves nothing untouched—even poetry itself which has its own industry and hallmarks of success. The Medellin Festival can be labeled as the festival of renewal. Perhaps, it is no coincidence that Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring.
I read a brief overview about Colombian history to acquaint myself before leaving for Medellin- it seemed like the history of so many nations- invasion from across the sea, conquest, erasure of native cultures and religion, replacement by Christianity, displacement of peoples, poverty, fight for independence, factions, civil war and political chaos.
The wounds of Medellin inspired Fernando Rendon, the festival’s director to make an overt statement of peace. In 1990 he organized the first festival and in 2010 Medellin will celebrate its twentieth year. It has gained in prominence and stature with each passing year making it a kind of pilgrimage spot for poets from which to sound one’s voice. I remember the first time I viewed the festival’s website- the haunting pictures of large audiences huddled close in intimacy around a stage… there was an incredible array of participating countries and attendance of legendary poets… Something impelled me to want to go to Medellin with an urgency I could not quite define or rationalize. I felt I had to add my voice to the call for peace. I was thrilled when the invitation came to represent India shortly thereafter. The Medellin Poetry Festival has been awarded the Swedish Right Livelihood Award (often referred to as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize.’) with Indian Rights Activist Ruth Manorama and Daniel Ellsberg. It is considered a cultural heritage within the country.
I arrived in Medellin on the late evening of July 3, 2009 and the first thing I saw on arrival was the presence of the paramilitary at the airport. It was an odd beginning but as the days unfolded the police though obvious was not obtrusive. I had my first glimpse of Medellin enroute to the Gran hotel which would host 63 poets from 45 countries for the next week. The city lay sprawled out glittering fabulously, a sea of splendid lights. This is one of the most popular sights depicted on postcards. It would later inspire my closure poem. It seemed like a city where you find love when young before Death finds you out in the streets.
The festival is attended by hundreds and thousands, and readings take place in parks, museums, auditoriums, cultural centers, open spaces, libraries in and around Medellin, and in ten other Colombian cities. The opening was held in the Carlos Vieco Theater, an open air theater. The rain came down for an hour; I remember looking up and suddenly a sea of umbrellas opened up like bright blossoms, the audience stayed on. It was the first feel of magic in Medellin- the rain, the umbrellas, the audience holding ground for poetry, moving closer to the stage, moving onto the stage with ease, sitting alongside the poets, the poets bonding with the audience, boundaries collapsing, the drumbeats, the rain coming down as a waterfall from the steps leading to the dais, the flames of the torches disappearing in the night like a dream falling back into the lake of the mind, poems in fourteen languages rising off the dais followed by Spanish translations… the memory is so vivid. “You are the poems,” says one poet to the crowd. It took just one evening for the poets to bond and realize that Medellin was extremely special. For poetry to receive this attention and honor is a rare and amazing thing in a world of rock stars and Hollywood. You got the feeling poetry was prophecy, sacred, the language of the soul, a real force with a course and purpose in History:
Fernando Rendon’s words reflected this tone:
We are young men aged just two million years
It is very difficult to live without trying to possess just one truth…
Only you know which is the hand that writes and which is the hand that erases, and what it writes and what it erases.
The poets read everyday in Medellin and traveled to other towns and cities in Colombia. The festival arranged for poets to take poetry to smaller towns and marginalized audiences. On many evening in the dining room where we were served delicious food by Chef Sebastian and staff, and would hear moving stories from poets, of their travel, the poverty and always, always the warmth of the people. The dining room was a place to conglomerate at the beginning and end of the day, to share meals, personal history, views, and poetry talk. There seems to be a different timeline at festivals- a compression of time in which friendships develop fast and a heightened communication and exchange of minds and hearts takes place. Of course, the food was an adventure as we sampled guacamole soup, platters of fruit that included zapotas (sapota), pineapple, papaya, fried plantains, uchuva (a small berry), arepa (corn cakes). Bandeja paisa, a signature dish is a medley of cooked beans, corn cakes plantains, ground beef, pork rind, rice and eggs.
I read in two towns- Bolivar and Carmen de Vibrola. In Carmen de Vibrola I read with Agneta Falk (Sweden), Henk van der waal (The Netherlands) and Alvaro Miranda (Colombia). The towns generally have a public square, a cultural center of some sort, a library and some defining cuisine and arts and crafts. After our reading at the cultural center we walked about the town, the main attraction a street, it’s walls decorated with pottery and ceramic artifacts. We were joined by a young boy Andres who volunteered to be our guide, a most polite and winning kid. Another gentleman who had been at the reading materialized and offered to treat us to manzaniilla, an aromatic tea in one of the cafes in the square The people of Colombia are extremely kind going beyond the call of duty or job. A team of young people come to Medellin especially for the experience to work as translators and volunteers. I think the festival is what it is on account of these young people. Their untiring willingness to help the poets in so many ways was phenomenal. We drove through resplendent green valleys and mountains to the town of Bolivar, a town known for its bright colors. My audience this time was mostly high schoolers- giggling girls with mournful looks already experiencing the pangs of first love and dreams yet to follow.
If I have a regret it was the inability to attend readings of many poets due to a clash of schedules I was extremely moved by the work of Nguyen Quang Thieu, the Vitenamese poet. The US revolutionary poet Jack Hirschman’s towering presence, large heartedness and laughter was unforgettable. His wife Agneta Falk’s poetry was searing and brilliant and in addition to many other poets like Jayne Cortez was a testimonial of personal courage. I was glad to see Azam Abidov from Uzbekistan whom I had met in 2008 in Calicut. Alvaro Miranda (Colombia); Guido Oldani (Italy); Rashidah Ismaili (Benin), Arthur Sze (USA); Ivonne Valkais (Ecuador); Mercedes Rofe (Argentinia); Ersi Sotiropoulos (Greece); Henk van der Waal (Netherlands); Jorge Riechmann (Spain), Ghasasan Zaqtan (Palestine); Alice Sun-Cua (Filipines); Fathieh Saudi (Jordan); Fadhil al-azzawi (Iraq) and so many others I carry in my heart. Forever, I will carry the wisdom of Fuad Rifka from Lebanon. His benign presence, kindness and simple profound poetry was a deeply moving experience and blessing. Sometimes we must go far to meet our own.
The closure of the festival was one that warms me still. The sea of people, the very tangible warmth, poets bound in kinship after a week together, the poetry in scores of languages, the songs in the night air... I think there was a deep awareness in all the poets that it was about poetry, not the poets; a gratitude for what poetry brings us- friendship, travel, a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world and a bridge to peace.
When I stood on the dais to offer my poems and farewell to the people of Medellin that evening under the stars, there was not sadness but joy in my heart. It was not for the standing ovation or the requests for autographs and photographs; it was not the reinforcement of the ego or of one’s talent—it was the immense love that was extended by so many, leaving me with a sense of humility and grace. I could not restrain my tears when an old woman came up the dais to hug me and shower blessings on me. I spontaneously touched her feet- a timeless Indian gesture, acknowledging the heart of Medellin. My personal journey would continue as it must for each of us, with thanks for what is offered on the way.
I see your needlework of light spread out,
Like a magic carpet to take me to my dreams,
Why cannot I see the ONE light within?